Escatawpa

Census Category Population(2010) Area
CDP (Class Code U5) 3722 6.68 Sq. Miles

January 9, 1989
by Regina Hines Ellison

In the days when Indians roamed the wilds of Jackson County, cane grew abundantly along the river that flowed to the east of the Pascagoula. The Indians were said to have made annual pilgrimages to this site to cut cane for their baskets.

Thus this riverside spot became known as Oestcatawpa, or “trim cane,” from the Choctaw word “uska” meaning cane and “tapa” meaning cut. People of many ethnic origins who settled in this region in the 1800s adopted the old Indian name, eventually spelling it, Escatawpa. That name is pronounced with pride by descendants of these old families and even those that came later. They are proud both of their heritage and of the fight their people have waged for most of this century to keep Escatawpa independent

In recent years Escatawpans have warded off annexation efforts by their neighbor across the river, Moss Point. Fiercely independent, even Escatawpans who are lukewarm to the concept of incorporation want to remain a separate entity.

Escatawpa has grown markedly in the past several decades from an almost sleepy village to a virtual city of 6,500 people with the same woes as other Coast cities, including a financially-troubled utility system.

The building of major highways, Mississippi 63 and 613 and the opening of Interstate 10, have boosted the already active business community.

But Escatawpa did not spring up suddenly as a result of the modern roads. Small pockets of people have lived throughout the widespread area referred to as Escatawpa, or Dog River as it was also called early on, since many years before the Civil War.

Neighboring communities, such as Wilson Springs, Three Rivers, Tiger Point, and Ford and, were once generally called Escatawpa. Ford was annexed by Moss Point in the early 1900s, a fact that has made Escatawpa wary ever since.

The 1870 census of Jackson County does not have a designation of Escatawpa, but refers to Dutch Bayou. Longtime residents say in days gone by the section bounded by the rivers was also nicknamed “Tugas.”

“When I was in 10th grade we had a basketball team going to Perkinston. They would call people who used to go to school over here Tugas people. I don’t know how it got started,” native Prentiss Nelson said.

Whether it was Dog River, Escatawpa, or Tugas, the place became officially known as Escatawpa in 1855, when Henry Ehlers opened the first post office and called it Escatawpa.

In 1844, G.P. Kerr had opened a short-lived post office named Saranac, which was no doubt in the vicinity of Saracennia Road, as the name was changed a short time later to Saracena, with Kerr still as postmaster. Clara Mills took the job in 1885, but a few months later, the post office closed and the mail from that area was served from the new Escatawpa Post Office.

The Escatawpa office had probably been the third establishment in the area’s history. Between 1853 and 1863, William G. Elder ran a post office in called Elder’s Ferry that was located around the Ford area. After it closed until the time that the Escatawpa post office opened mail came from Moss Point.

After Ehlers had been postmaster for five years, he was succeeded by Charles Ehlers and Victoria Bertram. Chrisian A. Mork became postmaster in 1895.

But the postmasters most remembered were Aurelia Stevens, who served from 1901 to 1914 and her sister, Lizzie Lester, who took over for awhile to be succeeded by Joe Dowdy.

The old post office was located just south of Interstate 10 on Mississippi 613. “It was just little, a one-room building and they handed you the mail,” said 90-year-old Mrs. Flora Canfield Lemaitre. Today’s post office is on Mississippi 613 in the heart of the business district.

Families who moved into the area in the 1800s were named Suthoff, Raby, Roberts, Rogers, Bertram, Cunningham, Miller, Mizell, Sherman, Oliver, Canfield, Lemaitre, Goff, Greenough, Smith, Graham, and others.

Historian F.W. “Bob” Cirlot of Moss Point says that more than a dozen German families emigrated from Bavaria, the Alsace-Lorraine and the German Rhine River area to Escatawpa about 1850. These included the Cromer, Ehler, Colmer, Fields, Brentz, Passo, Lennep, Phronie, Brondum families and others.

By 1858 the Germans had formed St. Paul’s Lutheran Church, one of the oldest Lutheran congregations, and with the congregation growing, a church was built of the north side of present day Dutch Bayou Road by 1879. The church, greatly resembling the Finnish Lutheran Church at Kreole, was built on land donated in 1878 by Conrad Cromer and Henry Ehlers, brothers-in-law, who owned much land.

Joe LeMaitre, an early Escatawpan of French descent, was a shinglemarker who made and donated the shingles for the church roof, says Mrs. Lemaitre, his daughter-in-law. Her husband was the widow of longtime storekeeper Ernest L. Lemaitre. Soon after the establishment of the church, the congregation secured Lutheran missionaries from New York to teach a school for religion and the three “Rs.”

Hearing about the school, others of German descent living on Louisiana’s Coast moved to Escatawpa. The children of other Escatawpa settlers, who had come from parts of the South and from Northern and Eastern states- the Smiths, Canfields, the Suthoffs and others-attended the school, regardless of their religious beliefs, until the county school system was developed in the late 1800s.

The Escatawpa congregation was the other church of Christ Lutheran Church in Pascagoula, organized in 1888. But the Pascagoula church grew as the Lutheran congregation at Escatawpa dwindled.

In 1943, a hurricane-damaged St. Paul’s was torn down. The lumber from the old church was used to build the parish hall at Christ Lutheran.

The Methodist Church was organized as Zion Methodist Church about the same time as the Lutheran on land deeded to the church by John Newton. Later the church built a larger building on Elder Ferry Road.

The First Baptist Church was born in February 1887. Later the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints was built just to the north of Escatawpa at Wilson Springs. The church community then grew with the Assembly of God and Four Mile Baptist Church and others came into being.

Oldtimers say Dutch Bayou was named for the large number of German families in the area.

In addition to the families of European background, several black families also lived in the Dutch Bayou section and also organized a church. According to Cirlot, old maps show that the bayou was once called Jerry Mouton’s Bayou, for a free black man who lived there before the Civil War. Mouton was said to have been a slave on the plantation of Louisiana’s Governor Mouton and had been freed.

Born and raised in the Dutch Bayou area, Flora Lemaitre lives in the house built by her father-in-law, Joe Lemaitre, when he returned from the Civil War. “When it was over, he walked here all the way from Virginia,” she said.

Another old home was the Nelson home, behind the First Baptist Church. The Suthoff home, built about 1886, was moved to make way for Interstate 10 several years ago.

Many generations of Escatawpa’s children have gone to school at the same spot although the school has been rebuilt at least three times. The present six-grade Escatawpa Elementary school, now part of the Moss Point School District, is on the same property as the first public school.

Prentiss Nelson said that he went to a two-story school in his youth, which was torn down and rebuilt about 1924 when county schools were being consolidated. The 1924 school, near the present school, was recently razed.

Alton Goff, who went to school in the mid-1920s, said the school once had grades one through 12. By the 1920s, there were only 10 grades. Gradually the number of grades were reduced to six when Escatawpa became part of the Moss Point School District. For years the school went to the 10th grade and youngsters traveled to Moss Point to finish high school.

“The school as I knew it was a wooden structure heated in winter by coal stoves, which were fired by Uncle Ellis Sherman,” said Valeria Lopez Richard, who has written her memoirs of Escatawpa in the Depression years.

Mrs. Richards has placed in the family history section of the Pascagoula Public Library her memoirs, which includes a list of people living in Escatawpa and where they lived during the 1930s.

For a small place, even in the late 1800s, Escatawpa had many stores and businesses. Early on, the community had electric lights and a movie theatre for silent films, say longtime residents.

“The first person to put in electric lights was Dr. Burnham,” said native Escatawpan Flora Canfield Lemaitre, who celebrated her 90th birthday in November. Mrs. Lemaitre, said she recalls that a man was once electrocuted as a result of a faulty electrical line, causing a stir in the community.

Among the most Escatawpa popular stores in the early part of this century were Dickson’s, Nelson’s, Goff’s, and Lemaitre’s. But there were others over the years. “We had anything you could want, but we didn’t have a bank,” said Mrs. Lemaitre. Today Escatwapa has four banks in its bustling business district.

After the Civil War, T.J. Dickson Sr. came to Escatwapa from Meridian and opened a store on the mail road, now Mississippi 613. His son, T.J. Dickson Jr., also had a store in later years, with both operating at the same time across the street form each other. The Dickson grocery store and the Dickson home next door was once destroyed by fire, oldtimers say.

After his father’s death, the younger Dickson moved his grocery business across the river to Moss Point and became active in government there.

The Lemaitre store was among the most long lived businesses in the community, starting in 1911, about three years before Ernest and Flora Lemaitre married.

“Mr. Lemaitre was Santa Claus headquarters, as he specialized in small toys and trinkets, as well as sewing notions, groceries and hardware items,” remembers Valeria Lopez Richard, who has written her memoirs of Escatawpa during the 1930s.

Also on Dutch Bayou Road was a dry goods store operated by Horace Nelson. His son, Lynn, had a small grocery store on present-day Mississippi 613.

Roland Goff, the father of retired Escatawpa businessman Alton Goff’s, ran a grocery and meat market form 1924 until 1947. Alton Goff worked with his father from the time he was about 10 years old and later opened a small department store.

“I liked Escatawpa the way it was,” said Alton Goff, who vividly remembers the general store days in the though years of the 1930s. “People used to sit around and talk and laugh. They didn’t know if they were going to eat, but they were happy,” he said. “I miss the closeness,” Goff said.

“The people were poor,” Alton Goff remembers of his youth. “There weren’t more that 500 to 600 people and during the Depression there were only about 14 cars running. Everyone had cow for milk and what they didn’t buy here, they ordered from Sears Roebuck.”

There were also smaller stores, such as those run by Jesse Cunningham and Herman R. Cropp. Cropp, who was from the North, married Mrs. LeMaitre’s widowed mother, Sophia Fritz Canfield, when Mrs. LeMaitre was a baby.

Mrs. Lemaitre said Cropp also had a grind mill that provided meal for the store. For a small fee, Cropp would also grind corn for others. “The country people would bring in their corn. We’d grind the corn for grits and the husk for the stock,” she said.

While most people grew much of their food, there were few who farmed for a living. Many worked in the sawmills in Ford and Moss Point and in other lumber-related jobs.

Mrs. Emma Lopez, 80, said she recalls a man named Bounds had rice fields irrigated with artesian wells. The fields were located on present day Mississippi 613 in the vicinity of the Escatawpa Quick Shop. “We ate a lot of rice,” she said. Barney Smith had a cane mill at the site of the Pascagoula-Moss Point Bank and there was also a turpentine still on the property now occupied by the Escatawpa Pharmacy and Rogers Ace Hardware.

Ed Nelson was the first person to bring in camellias and japonicas to Escatawpa. “He brought so many that he sold them to Bellingrath Gardens,” Mrs. Lopez said. “They grow everywhere now.”

The 1870, census of the Dutch Bayou, or Escatawpa area, shows a variety of occupations, including a few doctors, a dentist, a photographer and even the Circuit Clerk of Jackson County, H. Kirkwood. There were several sailors, people involved in construction and a foundry operated by L.M. Hand.

Later in the community’s history, there was neither a doctor nor a dentist in Escatawpa. Dr. R.D. Eley of Moss Point delivered many of the babies of the community, as did Aunt Sarah Bardwell, a mid-wife, recalls Mrs. Richards.

People say there were many businesses in the community, because of the poor traveling conditions in the days before bridges and good roads. Emma Lopez said her grandmother, Clara Cunningham, who was born in 1852, told her tales of riding to Mobile, Ala., with her father, John Cunningham, to buy supplies. The Cunninghams lived in the vicinity of Lundy Williams Road.

The trip took two days and the Cunninghams would have to camp out along the Dog River at Dickens Ferry, near Hurley, before making the round trip.

Clara Cunningham passed down stories of the Civil War to her descendants. Mrs. Lopez said Clara Cunningham was 12 years old when the Yankees came through Escatawpa. John Cunningham hid in the swamps, but his wife and daughters stayed behind. The Cunninghams had no slaves, she said, and the Northerners did not touch their property. But, she said, they traveled north to the Clark Plantation, where there were many slaves working and allegedly ravaged the place.

Escatawpans used several ferries to reach other places. A ferry was operated over the river south to Moss Point until the late 1920s when a bridge was built.

“My grandfather was the operator of the ferry boat and I loved to ride across the water with him,” remembers Mrs. Richard. “He didn’t take me just anytime, only a special trip now and then,” she said. The fare was 15 cents.

“I’ve lived to see three bridges built over the river,” said Mrs. Lemaitre. The first bridge, a steel one, was opened in 1927 with much fanfare. Lillian Nelson Greenough, then an elementary school child, was chosen by program organizer Mrs. Albert Thompson, to cut the ribbon. Virginia Eley, Dr. Eley’s daughter, broke a bottle of champagne across the bridge.

Prentiss Nelson, 75, remembers that this bridge proved to be too narrow for two-way traffic and several years later a used steel bridge was brought to the area form Biloxi. This bridge was longer than was needed, but it was cut in half and welded together to make a wider bridge. “It was a toll bridge,” Nelson said.

The third bridge over the Escatawpa was the new highrise bridge officially opened in 1987 and dedicated to deceased Korean War hero, Jack G. Hansen.

Before the 1940s, travel between Escatawpa and points south was still though. Prentiss Nelson said once one got off the ferry, or the bridge, there were only “one wagon” sawdust roads into Moss Point. Getting bogged down in the boggy land on either side of the road if one had to pull off for traffic was not uncommon. In the 1940s sand was pumped into the area to widen the thoroughfare.

The people who lived through times when their community was often isolated form the cities to the South say that in retrospect times were hard, but it was not so bad. Today Escatawpa seems to be nearly self-sufficient with many businesses, service providers and small industries, including several thriving boat yards. Many Escatawpans say that by working together, which has always been the spirit of the community and staying Escatawpa, that times can be even better.